Don’t Ask for New Ideas If You’re Not Ready to Act on Them
Companies that focus on innovation often worry about how to encourage people to contribute ideas. But what happens when you ask people to participate in an innovation effort, and then get flooded with too many suggestions?
That’s the dilemma that one of my clients described not long ago. Faced with a declining market and needing to ramp up growth, the company decided to tap into employees’ collective brainpower. Using an intranet-based crowdsourcing approach, management asked employees to suggest ideas for new products and services, how to increase sales, and how to improve customer satisfaction. A communications campaign also encouraged people to use the platform to comment on and “like” others’ input. Within a few days, hundreds of ideas and discussion threads came in. When the submission period ended, the company had well over a thousand ideas.
Unfortunately, our client hadn’t expected this kind of response, and the small team charged with orchestrating the innovation event was quickly overwhelmed. It took them over a week just to sort the ideas into categories. The summary document that they put together for the senior executive committee was 30 pages long, with demographic and functional breakdowns of where ideas had come from. By the time the committee reviewed and discussed it, almost a month had passed since the end of the crowdsourcing event. It then took a couple more weeks before management finally thanked everyone and announced that senior executives would follow up on specific ideas to pursue.
The good news from this case, of course, is that employees were engaged. People from across the company logged onto the site and contributed ideas. The bad news is that senior management wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of suggestions – and in the absence of timely and effective follow-up, the event didn’t actually produce substantial results. The lack of follow up also potentially made employees more cynical about future innovation efforts.
There are several key lessons that can be derived from this story. The first is that innovation requires more than just coming up with ideas. In fact, ideation may be the easiest part of the process, particularly when new platforms and tools make it easy for people to contribute. Filtering and selecting the right ideas, and then prototyping, pivoting, piloting, and ultimately scaling them, in the midst of competing priorities and limited resources, is much more difficult. So if you’re going to start an innovation effort, think about how to orchestrate the process after you have ideas to work with. Another key lesson is to be more specific about the focus and criteria for submitted ideas. If the parameters are too general, it becomes difficult to sort out the wheat from the chaff.
In another company, for example, management knew, based on past experience, that an innovation challenge could generate lots of ideas that were all over the map – so they needed to be prepared. First they focused the challenge on several specific operational processes, and made it clear what would need to go into a successful submission. They also selected a dozen high-potential managers from across the business to be “idea champions” and put them through training about how to help employees sharpen their inputs, how to sort ideas into categories, how to rank the ideas in terms of impact and achievability, and how to provide feedback to contributors.
Throughout the challenge, the hundreds of ideas that came in were quickly divided amongst the champions, who used common criteria to sort and select those that could create the most business value. By the end of the challenge period, the champions had identified a small portfolio of ideas that were worth pursuing. Each champion was then paired with a more senior manager to create a plan for testing, prototyping, and driving the idea forward (or failing fast). In this way, everyone in the organization not only knew the outcome of the challenge very quickly, but also understood that ideation was only the beginning of a much longer process.
The final lesson here is that real innovation requires clear communication and careful calibration of people’s expectations. With the right encouragement, people will submit ideas. But they’ll want to know that their “brilliant” ideas are given full consideration – and if they’re not chosen or implemented, they’ll want to know why. Managing these messages in a personalized way, when hundreds of people are involved, can be logistically challenging. But without this kind of feedback, ideation can be demoralizing, sort of like dropping an idea into a suggestion box and then being ignored. To counter this, the idea champions mentioned above also had the responsibility of providing quick “thank you’s” and feedback to people who sent in ideas. And for the ideas that were selected, the champions encouraged the originators to become part of the implementation team.
Getting lots of ideas is a key part of innovation and a great way to engage employees. But unless you have a process to manage these ideas, you run the risk of wasting not only the content, but also the good will that comes with it.